Terrorism & Extremism

What Does ISIS Really Want Now?

Jessica Stern
Saturday, November 28, 2015, 7:50 AM

In the latest issue of Dabiq, ISIS’s on-line magazine, the organization sets forth two principal but contradictory goals, which it labels “options.” The first is to spread a totalitarian caliphate throughout the region and, ultimately, the world.

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In the latest issue of Dabiq, ISIS’s on-line magazine, the organization sets forth two principal but contradictory goals, which it labels “options.” The first is to spread a totalitarian caliphate throughout the region and, ultimately, the world. The second is to polarize Muslims against one another, to incite internal divisions within the West, and to turn the West against Islam, with the ultimate goal of “goad[ing] the West into launching an all-out ground attack, thereby setting the scene for the final battle between Muslims and the crusaders prophesized to be held at Dabiq in Syria.”

Helpfully, ISIS has described for us those steps it regards as necessary to achieve the second option. As an ISIS author—writing under the name of British hostage John Cantlie—observes, option two would likely require “an operation overseas that is so destructive that America and its allies will have no alternative but to send in an army. This would have to be something on the scale, if not bigger, than 9/11. Then again I’m just guessing, American ‘hawks’ may very well come to Dabiq on their own without the Islamic State needing to blow up any dirty bombs in Manhattan.”

Mohammed al-Adnani, official spokesperson of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has repeatedly urged Muslims to carry out a jihad at home. The goal of attacking the West, ISIS says, is to eliminate the “grayzone” of moderate Islam and to force Muslims living in the West to either join ISIS or “apostasize and adopt the kufri religion.” To date, the majority of these attacks have been carried out by self-starters, or “lone wolves,” with little direction from central leadership. But it was only a matter of time before ISIS would attempt to coordinate attacks outside its territory. Indeed, U.S. and European officials say that Abu Mohammed al-Adnani’s role is to now oversee ISIS-directed attacks outside of Iraq and Syria.

Sophisticated attacks outside ISIS-controlled territory require trained fighters, as evidenced in the November 2015 attack in Paris. But such attacks are significantly easier to carry out with operational assistance of local personnel. For ISIS, finding labor is less taxing when they can recruit from an existing pool of disenfranchised Muslims. In examining ISIS recruitment, many of my colleagues have focused on ISIS’s “winner’s” narrative and the carefully choreographed branding whereby ISIS advertises—and attempts to create—a utopian state. This line of argument suggests that ISIS’s defense of its territory is critical to its ability to recruit Westerners. But I would suggest that ISIS attempts to create a somewhat different narrative—the redemption of the oppressed.

The narrative of victory most appeals to those who feel they have lost something. And ISIS deliberately appeals to disenfranchised Muslims, as well as to potential converts, around the world; to those—as ISIS puts it—“drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, and being ruled by the vilest of all people.” To those oppressed, ISIS promises the opportunity “to remove the garments of dishonor, and shake off the dust of humiliation and disgrace, for the era of lamenting and moaning has gone and the dawn of honor has emerged anew.” ISIS proclaims that “[t]he sun of jihad has risen.” In the current issue of Dabiq, ISIS refers to its followers as “the brothers who have refused to live a life of humiliation.”

An essay in Dabiq Issue 9 further underscores the promised reversal of fortunes. There, the author admonishes those who conflate having sex with a slave with rape or prostitution and notes that taking slaves through war “is a great prophetic Sunnah [tradition] containing many divine wisdoms and religious benefits, regardless of whether the people are aware of this.” The author gloats that ISIS has established a true caliphate, with “honor and pride for the Muslim and humiliation and degradation for the kaffir.” The victory ISIS speaks of is the victory of the formerly oppressed.

Civilizational humiliation at the hands of the West is a central theme for jihadists. This narrative of humiliation reverberates among some Muslims, who recognize that Islamic civilization was once the greatest on earth. That is no longer the case, and jihadists blame the West. The leader of a Pakistani jihadi group once told me he founded his group because he wanted to reclaim the golden period of Islam and "to recover what we lost.” He lamented that “Muslims have been overpowered by the West. Our ego hurts. We are not able to live up to our own standards for ourselves."

Borrowing from the secular anti-colonialist Franz Fanon, jihadi ideologues argue that violence is a way to cure the pernicious effects of centuries of humiliation, and a “cleansing force” that frees an oppressed youth from his “inferiority complex,” “despair” and “inaction,” and restores his self-respect.

To be clear, ISIS is a populist organization. It is seeking to seduce anyone and everyone who might be willing to join. One of the unique features of the group is that it tailors its narrative to individual recruits. But the overarching “victory” narrative, in my view, is meant to seduce those who feel the need to rise up against the oppressors.

ISIS and the jihadi movement are in some ways similar to the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and ’70s, although its goals and the values it represents are far different. Jihadis express their dissatisfaction with the status quo by making war, not love. They are seduced by Thanatos rather than Eros. They “love death as much as you [in the West] love life,” in Osama bin Laden’s famous and often-paraphrased words.

There are many reasons why this narrative of humiliation and redemption resonates, socio-political among others. According to the Arab Development Challenges Report, issued by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2011, Arab countries show a lower level of human development over the last quarter century than would normally be expected based on GDP. That report concludes that adopting a social contract of mutual accountability – in which citizens play a more active role in societal affairs – and shedding rentier-based political economies is essential to improving Arab state economies and governance. Furthermore, according to a study by the Carnegie Middle East Center, Arab youth are not being adequately prepared to compete in a globalized society. And the Middle East Policy Council finds that labor markets in many Arab states are incapable of producing enough jobs to sustain their growing youth populations. Poor governance creates the conditions under which extremist groups to thrive and are able to spread their message that the West is responsible for Arab plight. Weak or authoritarian governments, extremist religious groups, poverty, rage, and alienation work in concert to create segments of populations that are furious—and often rightly so—that the West supports the status quo in Arab states.

Most Muslim-majority states are ruled by non-democratic regimes. Only two Muslim-majority countries—Senegal and Tunisia—are classified as totally “free” in Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom in the World Report. The more democratic-leaning states of the Islamic world tend to be fragile and are as plagued by cronyism and corruption as any autocratic government. Many economists believe that a “natural-resource curse” prevents oil-rich countries from achieving viable democracies. But, as demonstrated by the U.S. attempt to impose Iraqi democracy, democratization is not necessarily the best way to fight Islamic extremism. To the contrary, where there is an absence of institutions to protect minorities, majoritarian rule can actually lead to an increase in violence. According to Marwan Muasher, in many cases, people join ISIS not because of its ideology, but rather “because it represents to them a rallying force against establishments that have failed them, or against the West.”

I hypothesize that the theme of civilizational humiliation resonates most deeply with individuals who have been subject to personal humiliations, such as torture, pederasty, and rape. The topic of personal victimization as a risk factor in recruitment is one I hope to explore by examining cultural practices and individuals cases in future scholarship.


For now, Western recruits represent the principal threat to the West. ISIS would very much like to turn Western Muslims against their homelands, and this has proven more easily accomplished in Europe than in the United States. One primary explanation may be that the pool of disenfranchised Muslim youth is simply larger in Europe. European Muslim youth describe themselves, often accurately, as victims of prejudice in the workplace and in society more generally. In the most recent European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey, one in three Muslim respondents reported experiencing discrimination, with the effect greatest among Muslims aged sixteen to twenty-four (overall discrimination rates decline with age). Muslims in Europe are far more likely to be unemployed and to receive lower pay for the same work than "native" Europeans. Consequently, Muslim immigrants in Europe are disproportionately impoverished. While ten percent of native Belgians live below the poverty line, that number is 59 percent for Turks and 56 percent for Moroccans in Belgium. There are 4.7 million Muslims living in France, many of them in poverty. An estimated 1,550 French citizens have left for Syria or Iraq; some 11,400 citizens have been identified as radical Islamists in French surveillance data.

By contrast, a majority of American Muslims are deeply integrated into American society. A 2011 Pew poll found that in the Muslim Americans feel happier with their lives than does the general population in the United States. That sentiment could change, however, with growing talk of imposing Nuremburg-style laws and requiring Muslims to register with the US government, that type of political speech could actually facilitate ISIS’s goals of American Muslim alienation.


Stephen Walt has argued that ISIS, though smaller, has much in common with other revolutionary states throughout history. In his famous article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” George Kennan, writing under the pseudonym “X,” described the difficulties faced by the Marxists in attempting to spread their revolutionary movement in Russia, and urged that the West should contain the Soviets rather than attempt to defeat them. There, he wrote

[L]acking wide popular support for the choice of bloody revolution as a means of social betterment, these revolutionists found in Marxist theory a highly convenient rationalization of their own instinctive desires. It afforded pseudo-scientific justification…for their yearning for power and revenge and for their inclination to cut corners in the pursuit of it.

If we exchange “Salafi jihadist theory” for “Marxist theory,” this description might equally apply to ISIS. Kennen argues that the establishment of dictatorial power becomes a necessity when the broader population does not share in the revolutionaries’ zeal. And it is for this reason, that ISIS has imposed dictatorial powers, as described by some who have managed to escape. Many hope that—as with Communist rule in the Soviet Union—the Salafi jihadists controlling the Islamic State will crumble beneath the weight of their own bad ideas and savage rule. However, it is unclear to what extent the international community has the patience to just wait ISIS out.


How should we respond?

Given enough political will and ground forces, the West can defeat the Islamic State in the territory it controls. This would require a massive military commitment, though the West certainly has the means. One problem, of course, is that many of the millions of people living under ISIS rule do not support ISIS and desperately wish to leave. These innocent people will, almost certainly, become collateral causalities and the West must grapple with this moral dilemma. In that regard, even attacks aimed at the ISIS economy prove problematic; many truckers smuggling oil out of ISIS-held territory are not ideologically motivated, but trying to feed their families. These are the types of people we would count on to rise up against the Islamic State given the opportunity. Still, many argue that, with the stakes so high, the right approach is the “merciless” war French President Francois Hollande has called for in the wake of the Paris attacks.

But even this “merciless” approach is only a temporary fix. Defeating ISIS in Syria requires ending the civil war there—a tall order, indeed—and for our troops to remain in the region until Sunni safety is assured. Even if the United States and allied forces were prepared to occupy Iraq and Syria for the next thirty years—as General Powell once argued for with regard to the war in Iraq—there is no guarantee of success. And ISIS has now spread into wilayat or provinces in some eight countries, where, there too, it capitalizes on poor governance.

Importantly, Salafi jihadists are not known to sit idle after their refuges are destroyed. They simply seek out new ones. One example is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded the predecessor organization to ISIS. Zarqawi had been running an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan when the United States invaded. He was wounded in a U.S. bombing raid, and fled to Iran, and from there to Iraq where he joined an organization fascinated by chemical weapons. Zarqawi would later try, unsuccessfully, to carry out a chemical attack in Jordan. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is now the mascot for ISIS.

For these reasons, among others, many have argued for an approach of military containment over an all-out war aimed at defeating ISIS on the territory it controls. Although President Obama claims to support a strategy of defeat, he does not appear to be pursuing the kind of war calculated to obliterate the Islamic State from the map. And the precise contours of the two sides in this the debate are difficult to define. In an Intelligence Squared debate in August 2015, those in favor of containment proposed employing every possible militarily tool to keep ISIS from expanding, and those in favor of defeat viewed a political strategy as primary. Notably, neither side supported a full-scale military invasion, and the narrator even complained that he was having difficulty finding areas of disagreement between the two sides.

But whatever the unifying strategy, as President Obama has said, ISIS is currently being contained militarily on the territory it controls and it has lost a significant fraction of its sanctuary since Operation Inherent Resolve began. But the most difficult task ahead is not containing ISIS militarily. Rather, it is to contain ISIS’s appeal among the global downtrodden, or those who imagine themselves to be fighting on their behalf. This will require, in the words of Bernard Haykel’s, “engaging in cultural and educational efforts to defeat ISIS’s ideology that sanctifies violence as the only means for Sunni empowerment and glory.” And Western governments are not equipped to do this alone. He notes, “[i]t is an effort that must emerge from within the Arab and Muslim communities.” Saudi Arabia, as the source of the “untamed Wahhabism” that underlies ISIS ideology, has an important role to play moving forward. Far more than we need their military support, we need the Arab states’ to lead the containment of ISIS ideology and to model alternative narratives.

What is to be expected going forward? ISIS will continue to pursue its two goals simultaneously, though those objectives are clearly antithetical. To one end, ISIS will continue to recruit foreign citizens for the creation of its caliphate. And to the other, it will continue to recruit volunteers to conduct attacks in the West aimed at triggering the all-out ground attack and prophesied final battle. We can expect that attacks in the West will grow more sophisticated and become more common. As an intermediate step, while ISIS exercises both of its antithetical options, the group will do its best to increase tensions between the “crusaders” and ordinary Muslims, to polarize Muslims against one another, and to incite internal divisions within the West. This is what ISIS wants. We know, because they’ve told us.

Jessica Stern, a Research Professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, is the coauthor with J.M. Berger, of ISIS: The State of Terror.

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